Internal Family SystemsSM (IFS) therapy, in addition to being a powerful and effective approach with individuals, is also often used by couples and marriage counselors to promote harmony in relationships and support intimate partners in developing Self-leadership. Since IFS is generally focused on an individual’s inner system of Self and parts, people may have confusion about how it can be used in couples and marriage counseling. Hence, we asked IFS Senior Trainer Toni Herbine-Blank (MS, RN, CS-P) to shed some light on how married and unmarried couples can benefit from IFS. Toni, a successful couples counselor since long before becoming involved with CSL, is the originator of Intimacy from the Inside Out®, an 80-hour intensive training on the application of IFS to couples therapy. For all professionals who are interested in using IFS in the context of couples/marriage counseling, we hope Toni's article will prove to be educational as well as inspiring.
Parts and Self in Relationship: IFS with Couples
Toni Herbine-Blank, MS, RN, CS-P
I am a couples therapist with extensive training, and I love my work. Nevertheless, for years I struggled when working with couples. Despite exquisite mentoring and support, I worked much harder than I wanted to, and I was more invested in outcomes than I should have been. Over time, I became overwhelmed and exhausted. Then my experience and that of my clients began to change as I learned the Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) Model, a treatment approach developed by Richard Schwartz, PhD, in the 1980s.
IFS views multiplicity of mind as the human norm and imports systems thinking, which was developed in various modes of family therapy, into the intrapsychic realm. The IFS approach altered my understanding of how human beings grow and have the capacity to transform, both internally and in relationship. As a result, I experienced a cascade of changes in my work as a couples therapist. First, I began to trust my clients’ Self, their inner wisdom, and their capacity to heal. The Self in IFS is available in all human beings. It is intrinsically whole (not wounded, injured, or crippled by experience) and replete with qualities ranging from curiosity and clarity to openhearted, spaciousness, and compassion. I realized that with access to Self, my clients had a tremendous array of inner resources, so there was no need for me to work to fix them or push my agenda. I relaxed. As if by miracle, I discovered that I was able to stay more present and de-center my perspective. As I learned to be curious, calm, and much more intuitive, my internal experience and my work both became spacious. At the same time, I let go of my definition of a good relationship, and the idea of collaborating with my clients took on new meaning.
The tenets of IFS therapy—an internal system of parts and Self, views on the motivations and conflicts of parts, and the protocol for resolving their conflicts—all apply equally to therapist and client. Success in the treatment of couples depends on the therapist’s knowledge of his or her own system. As you read the description below, I invite you to notice how you can apply it personally.
The level of differentiation between partners in the couple is a barometer for the more opaque level of internal differentiation between parts and Self. Even though the external relational field is our first point of contact with a couple, we first prioritize the internal. In IFS couples therapy, our first aim is to help parts differentiate from the Self in order to recognize and re-attach to the Self. This internal attachment work paves the couple’s relational road. A state of individuation and attachment, inside and out, is our goal.
In IFS therapy, then, we see the external mirroring the internal. The painful polarizations that entrap couples, the fears, the conflict, the adaptive but dysfunctional ways of coping, the rage and withdrawal, are also occurring internally between each client’s parts, causing pain and confusion, followed by feelings of loss, division, and rupture. While this synchrony between external and internal experience will, later in the therapy, begin to feel advantageous, it is initially a source of deep pain. Work with parts through the Self is needed to launch internal differentiation. The experience of compassion for one’s own inner family brings empathic recognition and tolerance for the dilemmas of our partners. Protective parts that developed out of relational rupture earlier in life gradually grow less vigilant and more trusting. With a healthy dose of Self-love, we develop more tolerance for other perspectives and loosen our grasp on the need to be right. Our hearts become less guarded. With an open heart, differences are not a threat to survival.
Once the individuals in a couple have more access to Self, transformation is natural. For example, being clear in saying yes and no becomes less threatening. Anger turns out to be a resource for change rather than a weapon. The courage to hear feedback without rigid protection grows, as does the skill of speaking truths with care and respect. Our hope is that couples in this process are learning to accept what is and to be in connection without pushing, striving, and judging either themselves or each other. When requests for behavioral change come through Self rather than from a protective part, the delivery and tone can be so different that our partners are better able to listen and more likely to feel willing to respond.
When relationship ruptures do occur, the internal connection to Self can foster the grace of low reactivity. With access to Self energy, we find the space and capacity to choose a response, even when our partner is not able to do the same. Being less vulnerable to shame, we are better able to stay connected and attuned internally as well as externally. And if we ourselves have been hurtful or misattuned, we can make the needed repair. The drive for individuality joins the relational dance of your parts, my parts, and our access to a resourceful Self.
In short, the IFS couples therapist trusts that the client system has its own innate intelligence and capacity for healing. The power of differentiated attachment in an inner system is the accessible, inherent capacity for love and care that comes with Self energy. While the relationship between clients and therapist is fundamental to the healing process, it nevertheless follows that we do not believe insight on the part of the therapist to be crucial—or even particularly useful—for healing.
The U-Turn to Re-Turn
Parts can be differentiated by their position in the internal system and their roles in relation to one another. Protective parts, of course, protect. Exiled parts—the objects of protection—are the vulnerable ones that have taken direct hits in traumatic situations, often early in childhood with caretakers and other attachment figures. I call the meaning that children imbibe from these traumatic events, and the stories they go on telling themselves about themselves thereafter, relational burdens. A relational burden goes like this: “I am unlovable, I’m not good enough, I’m bad, and I’m worthless.” In all my years as a therapist, I have yet to encounter a human being whose core pain doesn’t revolve around such a belief.
Exiles are usually young children who live in the past. They long to be rescued and redeemed, and so are at risk of gravitating toward people with traits similar to those who hurt them in the first place. But in any case, whomever the exile chooses, he or she seeks a redeemer.
We all have our exiles. IFS teaches therapists—and we invite couples—to embrace the U-turn and bring compassion to our own wounded inner parts, actively healing the past and ending its tidal pull on the present so we can re-turn to our partners in the here and now. In addition, our unburdening of relational trauma invites our partners to access their Self energy and their inherent ability to re-turn, connect, bond, and provide loving, attuned behaviors. In this process of differentiated attachment, we learn to be the constant source of love and care for ourselves that we have always longed for. When our beloveds are no longer called upon to meet all our needs, they are free to notice the crucial role they do play in loving and supporting us. In this way, we learn to receive the care that is offered, while remaining present to ourselves when that care is not available.
When I meet with a couple for the first time, I invite them to talk to me and to each other about what brings them to therapy. I ask them to describe their issues and talk about their hopes, frustrations, and fears. I encourage a conversation about what they learned during childhood about conflict in relationships. Meanwhile, I am paying close attention to their ease or discomfort. I notice their language. Do they use blame and criticism to illustrate frustration? I notice how quickly they defend or fall silent. All this information tells me about their level of differentiation, their access to Self. Many couples who seek help have difficulty staying open and curious as they speak to me and to each other. They may have hyperaroused parts; or angry, defensive, or hypoaroused withdrawn and collapsed parts that make them inarticulate. Noticing these patterns tells me about a couple’s ability to separate, or unblend, from reactive parts. If a couple chooses to remain together (and not all do or should), the ability to have a loving, connected relationship with their parts while staying connected with their partner, even in moments of conflict, will be at the core of their work together. I want couples to understand that conflict is inevitable and that their process during difficult conversations is much more important than the content of their arguments.
To gauge an individual’s level of comfort with their internal system, I observe them looking to their partner for affirmation or invalidation in any given moment. Some seem to say, I cannot be okay if you don’t think I am okay. If my experience of me is different from your experience of me, I feel anxious. Upon discovering that they hold different opinions, many couples believe that one of them must be right and the other wrong. To cope with this threat, they try to convince the other to see, or at least to confirm, their perspective. If this tactic doesn’t work, they might collapse, deny, or invalidate their own experience to recover the illusion of sameness and a temporary, but false, sense of safety. Or they might move toward being right, which immediately shuts down any shared experience and severs connection. As I am paying attention to all of the above, I listen as well for the hopelessness and despair that spring up with the recognition that this person, their partner, is not the source of constant security they long for, but has instead become a source of pain.
I invite couples to imagine what life might be like with less internal reactivity toward one another. It is often a stretch for people in pain to believe that they can change from the inside out, and that in so doing, they will change their experience from the outside in. Protective parts, in my experience, get frightened when they hear my invitation to stop focusing on changing the partner and instead to move inside. I am careful in this moment not to condone bad or abusive behavior, and I clarify that I do not believe in suffering endlessly at the hands of one’s partner. My offer to turn inward is about Self-empowerment in service of less reactivity and more choice.
Although re-doing conflict in the office, learning to speak for (instead of from) parts, naming projections, and identifying polarizations are important steps in IFS couples work, they are not the end of the story. There will always be internal protectors whose job is to prevent vulnerable young parts from flooding the system with unbearable emotion. It is therefore necessary, just as it is in individual IFS therapy, to attend to the extreme, toxic beliefs of exiles. As couples therapy progresses and exiles surface, it is often necessary to do individual work with one partner or the other. However, many couples can create enough safety to do this work in the presence of their partner. Witnessing another’s deep healing work is a profound experience. It is a vicarious journey toward the Self. Schwartz calls it a radical U-turn. However, our goal is not to turn inward forever, but rather to re-turn to connection with more love and compassion.
If being a couples therapist is at times challenging, being a partner in committed relationship is a certain trip into the unknown. When we fall in love and commit to someone, most of us have no clue about love and intimacy. But we all want to feel safe, secure, and unconditionally loved. We all get disappointed with our partner at times; we all know that our partner can get distracted, preoccupied, disconnected, and unavailable. In IFS therapy, our aim is to help each client access the Self that will provide continual love and care to our inner family—a profound and transformative love. As a client once noted after witnessing his partner fall deeply in love with her inner wounded child, Finally I can really love and feel empathy for that little girl, knowing it isn’t entirely mine to fix and heal.
The IFS approach to couples therapy is a mode of treatment that aims to help couples develop a deeply satisfying relationship between many parts and two spacious Selves, letting our partner become an important—but not the only or primary—source of love.
As an IFS therapist, my intention is to invite partners to accept their humanness and their capacity to love deeply—first themselves and then each other. I extend an invitation for people to stretch into what’s possible for their relationships, but I no longer try to convince them that they should.
For me, the grace of IFS has been to learn to be present with all that arrives in my office—to relax and trust the process as it unfolds. These days, I have learned to make the necessary interventions, more often than not, with much more clarity, genuine curiosity, and an open heart.
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Schwartz, R.C. (1997). Internal family systems therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
Schwartz, R.C. (2008). You are the one you’ve been waiting for: Bringing courageous love to intimate relationships. Oak Park, IL: Trailhead Publications.
Seigel, D.J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: Norton.
Welwood, J. (2006). Perfect love, imperfect relationships: Healing the wound of the heart. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
My gratitude to Martha Sweezy, PhD, for her help in editing. Martha is an IFS therapist in private practice in Northampton, MA.